My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The slice-of-life scenes in Donna Miscolta’s tightly written “When the de la Cruz Family Danced” create an elegant portrait of a Southern California family suspended between its first and second generation Filipino origins, its “Little Manila” neighborhood and the outside world, and between familial cohesiveness and individual freedom. As the novel begins, the family is mired in a stasis that has crept uninvited into its home through the dynamics of time, illness, aging and lack of attention.
Also uninvited, a young man named Winston comes into their home because he believes he might be Johnny de la Cruz’s unacknowledged—and perhaps, unknown—son. Nineteen years earlier, Johnny made his only return trip to the Philippines to visit his family. While there, he had an unplanned sexual encounter with an old flame. Since they never spoke again, Johnny didn’t know Bunny Piña subsequently separated from her husband and moved to California with her son Winston. Winston didn’t know about the de la Cruz family until he found an un-mailed letter to Johnny hidden among his mother’s mementos when she died.
Lost after his mother’s death, Winston wants to know more about Johnny even though he cannot articulate exactly why. He wonders whether Bunny meant to mail the letter and simply forgot it or whether she chose to remain silent. The sentiments include “since you so gallantly made your escape from my couch that afternoon” and “we each had our reasons for what happened.” Does this suggest that Johnny is Winston’s biological father? While Winston isn’t sure, he wants to get to the heart of the secret Bunny never shared.
When he finds Johnny dying of cancer and the rest of the family suspicious of his motives for appearing on its doorstep, Winston simply says he’s Bunny’s son. He says he didn’t know if Johnny heard that Bunny moved to the U.S. or that she had recently died. At this point, readers might expect Winston to leave after suffering through a few days of the de la Cruz family’s polite but disinterested company or that he will produce the letter and ask, “Johnny, are you my father?”
Instead, Miscolta carefully inserts Johnny into the family’s life. None of them are quite sure why he’s still there, but he’s nice enough. He helps Tessie look after Johnny, partly by keeping him company. While the slice-of-life details about family life, shown from the viewpoints of each of the family members, do slow down the development of the plot, they paradoxically add great depth to the novel and to the reader’s understanding of the family itself.
Miscolta has created poignant story about a family (with secrets) that very much needs to find itself within the multicultural world of Southern California. The story revolves around one dual question: will Winston come and go and soon be forgotten or will he be the catalyst for something more long term and meaningful? All of the characters step close and then step away from that question like awkward beginners at a club who haven’t yet learned how to dance.
“When the de la Cruz Family Danced” is a highly recommended waltz of well-crafted prose and endearing characters.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “The Sun Singer,” “Garden of Heaven: an Odyssey” and “Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire.”